Howard College To Sell Off 18th-century Belmont Estate

August 28, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

After five years of contention, Howard Community College is putting Belmont, its secluded 18th-century estate in Elkridge, up for sale.

The unanimous decision by the college's board of trustees comes as college leaders confront a growing demand for money to expand the main campus in Columbia. With the state cutting operating funds, tuition increases are likely even as more students seek financial aid.

"There is concern this might not be the end of cuts for the year," Howard Community College President Kate Hetherington told the board of trustees at a meeting Wednesday night. The college will lose $653,174 in state aid this year.

The state Board of Public Works voted to cut $10.5 million from state funding for community colleges, even as the sour economy drives more students to the cheaper two-year institutions.

"It does feel draconian, but it feels right to me," board Cairman T. James Truby said about the decision as he voted to sell Belmont at the board meeting.

Longtime critics of the college's stewardship were happy.

"It's a relief," said Cathy Hudson, who heads the Save Belmont Coalition, a group of preservationists and community residents concerned that the college wanted to develop part of the property or was mismanaging it.

"I'm pleased. Belmont has always been a distraction and a drain on the core operation," said County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who represents the area and had opposed using county money to help the college buy the property.

County Executive Ken Ulman said the county may now use $2.2 million budgeted for renovations at Belmont to help cushion the blow of $8.3 million in state cuts to the county. When a sale occurs, the county will get back another $2.2 million.

"It could be used to reduce a revenue shortfall or in other ways," he said. "Certainly, it helps."

The cost of proposed additions and renovations at the 44-room pale-yellow manor house and outbuildings has doubled since Howard County approved money for the work over a year ago. Used for college culinary arts and hospitality programs for 177 students, the retreat and conference center has never paid its own operating costs since the college foundation bought the property in 2004 for $5.2 million. The college took direct control late last year.

By contrast, there are 196 people waiting to get into the college's nursing program, which needs $32 million for a new health sciences building and a parking garage to accommodate them. The college is already carrying a $10.2 million debt.

With 35 percent of the students getting some kind of financial aid, and enrollment to increase 10 percent to 12 percent this year, several board members said they could not see borrowing more for Belmont.

"We're beginning to get to a point where we're piling on obligations," said board member Louis G. Hutt Jr., who later made the motion to sell.

The 68-acre estate likely would be marketed nationally as a unique property surrounded by Patapsco State Park and over 100 acres of privately preserved land along a long, one-lane entry road, Hetherington said after the meeting. The property is under Maryland Historical Trust easements that limit changes that could mar the historic ambience of the estate.

Built in 1738 as a wedding gift for the son of Caleb Dorsey, an early area industrialist, the mansion sits on a small hill facing a long double row of mature trees.

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